Communities across the US are protesting in response to the ongoing police killings of Black people and to wider social conditions that demonstrate a history of structural violence and racism against communities of color. Here are 5 steps that local and state health departments can take to protect public health in the context of these uprisings and demonstrate support for protesters’ and their demands.
Communities across the US are protesting in response to the ongoing police killings of Black people and to wider social conditions that demonstrate a history of structural violence and racism against communities of color. This emerging broader social movement against injustice centers on issues that health departments have long considered part of our agenda: health equity, racial equity, social determinants of health, and community empowerment. Unfortunately, we are seeing widespread police violence in response to these uprisings, further threatening people’s health and wellbeing.
There are a number of important actions that health departments can take to protect the health and well-being of protestors and the wider communities who support them. This document provides 5 steps that local and state health departments can take — both internally and externally with their sister agencies — to protect public health in the context of these uprisings, and demonstrate support for protestors’ and their demands.
1. Encourage sister agencies to stop deploying local law enforcement, the National Guard, or other military units to community protests.
- The American Public Health Association acknowledges police violence as a public health issue that results in deaths, injuries, trauma, and stress that disproportionately affect marginalized populations.
- In the last week, we have seen law enforcement instigate and escalate violence at protests around the country. Furthermore, because of recent trends to militarize local law enforcement, police around the country now have outsized access to military equipment and tactics, such as tear gas.
- The use of chemical irritants — such as tear gas and pepper spray — are always harmful to health, but particularly so in the midst of a global pandemic that primarily impacts the respiratory system.
2. Publicly confirm that the right to protest is not incompatible with pandemic response, and that punitive police responses to protest can exacerbate health risks and harms.
- Dr. Tom Frieden, former head of the CDC and NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene stated, ‘The threat to Covid control from protesting outside is tiny compared to the threat to Covid control created when governments act in ways that lose community trust. People can protest peacefully AND work together to stop Covid. Violence harms public health.’
- Because of the risk that policing and incarceration pose to individual, family, and community health, especially during a pandemic, health departments must ensure that responses to both the pandemic and the protests are non-punitive. Jails are particularly dangerous to one’s health right now. Indeed, recent epidemiological modeling shows that there is a community health imperative to depopulate jails to save lives.
- Public health departments need to advise against mandatory curfews and punitive responses to shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders.
- Focus on encouraging people to stay at home without policing and punishment being the enforcement mechanism. We can do this by combating misinformation about COVID-19 and by ensuring that people have what they need so that they can stay home — including paid sick leave, food, and access to healthcare.
3. Distribute masks and hand sanitizer for protestors and encourage social distancing guidelines at protests.
- Protesting the threat of racist police violence is vital to maintaining public health, especially for Black communities. At the same time, long-standing systemic racism also creates the context in which Black people are more likely to develop COVID-19, be hospitalized, and die of the virus.
- Support those advocating for racial justice by ensuring that all protestors are provided with masks, hand sanitizer, or hand-washing stations and that those who show up to protest maintain 6 feet of distance from one another.
4. Challenge law enforcement’s co-opting of public health language and methods — e.g., contact tracing — for use in surveilling protestors.
- Privacy advocates have expressed concern at the use of contract tracing tools to increase surveillance on people, especially those in marginalized communities.
- Last week, the Public Safety Commissioner in Minnesota suggested that law enforcement was using contact tracing to track those who had been arrested at protests. Public health authorities clarified that this was not the case, and that the language was being misused. However, there are no protections to prevent law enforcement from framing their surveillance or using these tools in such a way.
5. Advocate for local, state, tribal, and federal budgets that invest in health instead of punishment.
- While public health department budgets have shrunk over the past decade, law enforcement, corrections, and military budgets have grown without accountability or reason. These tax dollars would be better spent toward building a just, fair, inclusive, and healthy society, providing for needs such as housing and clean water. COVID-19 has made the need to advocate for strong infrastructure and social supports urgently clear.
For more information or to request technical assistance on ways health departments can respond to policing beyond the current protest movement, please contact Ana Tellez, Capacity Building Program Director at firstname.lastname@example.org